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FILM : 'E.T.' Gives Grinches Reason to Smile

August 20, 1992|MARK CHALON SMITH | Mark Chalon Smith is a free-lance writer who regularly writes about film for The Times Orange County Edition.

There's a scene in an old "Taxi" episode where Alex, the Judd Hirsch character, is fed up with all the gushy talk about "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial." He's a grump and he just can't imagine a movie so fuzzy and lovable.

But after catching a matinee, he returns to the garage and crows about the wonder of "E.T." He even mimics that famous "E.T. phone home" line.

That's just what Steven Spielberg's movie--being shown Friday night as part of Golden West College's outdoor family film series--is supposed to do: turn grinches into grinners, and hearts of stone to goo. It pretty much accomplishes its goal.

Pauline Kael wrote that "Spielberg's movie is bathed in warmth, and it seems to clear all the bad thoughts out of your head." I wouldn't go that far. The film has always been less to me than to some people: It may be a great feel-good movie, but that doesn't make it a great movie. It remains, at least to my way of thinking, a small-frame effort of gentle virtue that grew miraculously into a towering monument to an often radiant but basically sporadic director's career.

This tall tale about a fire hydrant-sized alien (whose gargly voice, rumor has it, was provided by Debra Winger) marooned in gaping suburbia is considered Spielberg's masterpiece, the movie that reveals his raison d'etre. It is quintessential, but it's not his best work.

The earlier "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" is more complex, sophisticated and emotionally satisfying, demonstrating an ability to charm and surprise us that Spielberg seems to have lost these days (think of the recent, sentimentally bloated "Hook").

Still, as a family movie, "E.T." is in rarefied company, as joyous and shareable between kids and their parents as the best Disney animated features. Spielberg presents the good morals of a fable (be kind and help out the needy, be brave in the face of daunting obstacles, always be a good friend) in ways that are affirming, naive and consequently pure.

Of course, they all added up to something not so naive--the biggest international box office generator in movie history. And so a legend was born, both among Hollywood studio bosses with dollars in their hearts, and a moviegoing public just looking for a little heart, period.

What: "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial" (1982) by Steven Spielberg.

Where: The Golden West College amphitheater, 15744 Golden West St., Huntington Beach.

When: Friday, Aug. 21. Amphitheater opens at 7 p.m., show starts around 8.

Whereabouts: Take the San Diego (405) Freeway to Golden West Street and head south.

Wherewithal: $1.50 and $2.

Where to Call: (714) 891-3991.

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